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Wood burning stoves: what you need to know

Using a log burner or multi-fuel stove

By Liz Ransome-Croker

Article 6 of 7

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Using a log burner or multi-fuel stove

Our guide to using a multi-fuel or wood-burning stove takes you through how to light your stove, how to maintain it, and how to use it efficiently.

Whether you’ve just bought a stove, are thinking of getting one, or have inherited one with a home you’ve moved into, there are a number of things to consider so you can make the most of your log burner or multi-fuel stove. 

We’ve spoken to stove owners, installers and industry experts to get the best advice on using and maintaining your stove. Read on or jump down to the section you want for everything you need to know. You can also use our videos to find out the best way to light wood and coal on a stove.

If you're considering getting a stove, our wood-burning stove reviews will reveal how stove owners rated popular brands, including Stovax, Charnwood, Morso and Clearview. One of the 12 brands got a sky-high customer score of 94%.

If you're interested in finding out whether you could save by using a stove, read our expert advice on stove costs and savings. This includes our stove costs tool to help you work out whether you'll save on your heating bill, as well as our handy downloadable checklist on buying, installing and using a stove.

Coal vs wood 

There are clear benefits to burning wood instead of coal. As well as coal being generally more expensive than wood, it produces much more CO2, so is less environmentally friendly.

Wood is the most commonly used fuel by the 1,434 Which? members we surveyed*, followed by smokeless coal - read on for more details on these types of fuel.

A wood-burning stove can only burn wood, whereas a multi-fuel stove can also burn coal. To help you decide which to buy, we also asked stove owners whether they believe their stove has saved them money on their energy bills. 

Overall, 52% believe they have, while 37% don't think it has made any difference. Breaking this down by the type of stove people have, more people with a multi-fuel stove believe it has reduced their bills:

  • Multi-fuel stove - 54%
  • Wood-burning stove - 49%

Wood-burning

If you're thinking of getting a multi-fuel stove, think about what fuel you're going to use. According to a survey conducted by the Stove Industry Alliance (SIA), 77% of multi-fuel stoves owners said they used their stove exclusively to burn wood. 

As not all multi-fuel stoves burn wood as efficiently as dedicated wood-burning stoves, those people might be better off with a dedicated log burner.

For more information on different types of stoves and to find out which is right for you, see our guide to types of stoves.

Sourcing wood for your wood-burning stove 

To make sure you get the most out of your wood-burning stove, and don't create additional pollution to the atmosphere, it’s important to use the right kind of wood.

A third of the people we spoke to weren’t told the best fuel to use on their stove when they bought it and nearly half (43%) didn't get advice on which ones to avoid – leaving them potentially using the most polluting fuels.

Some people may have got this information when their stove was installed, but, either way, make sure you're clued up before you use your stove. 

First and foremost, you need to burn wood that is as dry as possible – it should only contain less than 20% moisture. 

Using fresh logs with a high moisture content of around 60% to 90% will reduce your stove’s heat output - 5% of the people we spoke to use 'wet logs'. 

This is because you’ll waste energy burning off the water, so you’ll need to use more to warm the room. It will also leave more build-up in your chimney, create more smoke and potentially harmful air pollutants. 

Never burn freshly cut wood as it creates a lot of smoke and makes the stove dirty

You can reduce the moisture content of freshly cut wood by drying it yourself, which is called seasoning. To do this, it’s best to store the wood in a dry place for at least a year, preferably two. To help you work out how dry your wood is, you can also buy a moisture meter – these cost around £20.

For the best results, the wood should be left on a dry surface protected from rain. Leave the sides exposed to air and wind, as it will speed up the drying process. You can buy dedicated wood stores to help with this. 

Chopping the wood down to size before storing it will also help it to dry more quickly. Alternatively, you could buy ready-seasoned wood at a little extra cost - see more about fuel prices below.

When we asked stove owners about the types of fuel they use, the highest proportion (81%) use seasoned logs, while the second largest (35%) use kiln-dried logs. 

69%of people use seasoned logs on their stove.

Different types of logs will state the estimated heat output when it's burnt in kWh – the higher this is, the more heat it will produce.

The government announced plans in its Clear Air Strategy 2019 to actually limit the sale of wood fuel with too much moisture, unless it's to be seasoned at home. 

You can visit our stoves and pollution page for more information on the types of pollutants stoves can create and how to minimise them, as well as the government's plans.

It's also worth looking out for the Ready to Burn logo, as this means the wood has 20% or less moister and is from an approved supplier. 

Launched by wood-assurance organisation Woodsure, the government-backed scheme means wood manufacturers must meet certain criteria to use the label. Their wood is also tested and verified by Woodsure.

Cost of wood fuel 

The price of wood varies depending on where you are in the country and what type of wood you buy. Wood is often sold in large bags by the cubic metre, or in smaller bags and nets in kg. It's sometimes also sold by the pallet. 

But to give you a rough idea of the cost of wood, we've looked at prices across a number of online suppliers (autumn 2019). The prices for the logs are for softwoods (pine and fir, for example), and hardwoods, such as oak, ash, beech and birch.

All sites deliver across the UK, and the prices for seasoned and kiln-dried logs don't include delivery, but the price for the wood pellets and briquettes do.

  • Partially-dried wood has around 25% to 40% moisture content, depending how long and how well it has been dried out already. It can usually be purchased for around £116 per cubic metre. This type of wood shouldn't be burnt as it is, but seasoned at home until the moisture content is below 20%.
  • Kiln-dried wood is more expensive, about £135 per cubic metre, but it's more efficient and can be used immediately. On average, it contains less than 20% moisture and burning it produces a heat output of around 4.5kWh per kg.
  • Briquettes, fuel created from crushing recycled wood or paper, have a low moisture content - as little as 10% or less, so they burn very efficiently and have a heat output of around 5kWh. These are sold by the kg, and usually cost around £300 for 1,000kg. 
  • If you have a specialised wood pellet stove, you can usually buy wood pellets online or from a local supplier. Wood pellets are sold by the kg and cost around £290 per 500g. The Stove Industry Alliance (SIA) recommends that you buy ENplus standard pellets, which have roughly 10% moisture content and will give you a heat output of around 5kWh per kg.

Note that 500kg equates to around one cubic metre, so working out how much wood will cost for the amount you'll use is a little tricky. But you can find out more about how to calculate this, as well as the costs of buying, installing and using a stove, in our expert guide to stove costs and savings.

Kindling can be sourced from pallets used for building suppliers and found in skips (just check with the owners first)

It's sometimes possible to collect wood fuel free of charge from building sites, skips or local woods – a number of stove owners we asked do this.

But legally you don’t have a right to it, so it’s really important to check first with the site or land owners that they’re happy for you to take it. It’s worth also asking whether the wood has been treated with chemicals – if it has, it could be unsafe to burn.

You can also buy freshly-cut or 'wet' wood for around £100 per cubic metre, but you will need to season this at home.

A lot of stove owners also said that they use wood from their own gardens, or that of friends and family, to burn on their stove, so it's free. But, as mentioned, it must be dried out as much as possible first.

How much wood will I need for my log burner?

As a rough guide, an average-sized house that uses a stove in the evenings and at weekends will need about three to four cubic metres of wood a year.

Although wood itself is considered a carbon-neutral fuel, transporting it uses CO2. So it’s best to try to find a supplier close to home. You can find a local supplier on the wood fuel directory website.

Cost of coal for your multi-fuel stove 

There are a number of different types of coal, all made in different ways. But there are two main types of coal that are used on a stove: house coal, which just 4% of our respondents use, and smokeless coal, used by 22%. 

House coal is more expensive and less environmentally friendly, as it produces more emissions compared with smokeless coal. It also creates more ash and therefore will mean your stove requires a little more maintenance.

Smokeless coal is an umbrella term for a few different types of coals that produce less smoke as they burn. It includes anthracite coal, which occurs naturally, but can also be manufactured. 

This means that smokeless coals can be made from a combination of elements, including anthracite coal, peat and other renewable materials, making many of them more eco-friendly than house coal.

Coal is generally sold in 10kg bags, but you can buy in bulk to reduce costs. It has the heat output of around 8kWh per kg. 

Roughly speaking, a 10kg bag of house coal can cost between £5 and £10, while smokeless coal costs around £10 to £15 (autumn 2017). 

Videos: lighting a stove 

Everyone's home and stove are different. This means a lot of different factors – including air pressure and the type of flue you have – can change the way you light and use your stove. 

But it's important to keep your fire burning, keep your flue hot and stop your stove from smoking, to minimise levels of potentially harmful emissions.

When we asked stove owners about the information they were given when they bought their stove, 24% weren't told how to use their stove safely and 26% how to use it efficiently. When it was installed, 33% weren't told about either of these areas.

Make sure that you ask the company you buy your stove from and who it's installed by for details on this. Preferably, also ask for a demonstration, too. 

Finding the most effective way to ignite your stove and keep it burning at the right temperature will take a bit of practice. But our videos and step-by-step tips will help you get started.

Lighting your wood-burning stove

Seven steps to lighting and controlling your wood-burning stove

1. Fully open the air vents. There will be a primary air vent at the bottom, and secondary (also called an airwash) at the top, if you have one.

2. Create a base for the fire. Place a firelighter or, to be more eco-friendly, paper or beeswax, together with some dry kindling wood and scrunched up paper on the grate. As the flue needs to get hot, making a tepee shape with the wood and paper will help direct the heat up so it warms quicker.

3. Light the firelighter or paper/beeswax and leave the door slightly ajar. This will help the heat travel up the flue and minimise condensation on the glass.

4. Once the fire is going, add some larger pieces of wood. Be careful not to add too many logs, as they could smother the fire.

5. When the logs have caught and the fire is fully established, close the door completely and the vent at the bottom of the stove. You can use the secondary vent to control how the fire burns. Opening it increases the heat output and should help a dying fire re-establish.

6. Add more logs once the current ones have burnt down, but are still glowing red. Using a poker, spread the embers evenly. Then place more logs on top and leave space for air to circulate.

7. Close the door and open the vents until the logs are burning well. Then close the primary vent and use the secondary one in the same way as before.

Lighting and controlling your multi-fuel stove

Eight steps to lighting and controlling your multi-fuel stove

1. Firstly, half close the top air vent and open the bottom. This allows air to circulate under the coal.

2. Create a base for the fire with a firelighter (eco versions are available) and scrunched-up paper. On top of this, add dry kindling wood. The flue needs to get hot. Making a tepee shape with the paper and kindling will help direct the heat up the flue.

3. Light the firelighter or paper, leaving the door slightly ajar. This will help the heat travel up the flue and minimise condensation on the glass.

4. Once the kindling has burnt down to glowing embers, add the coal. 

5. Once the fire has established, close the door and the vent at the top of the stove, if you have one. 

6. You can use the primary air vent at the bottom to control how the fire burns. Opening it increases the heat output and should help a dying fire re-establish.

7. When you want to add more coal, first clear ash from the grate using the stove’s riddling mechanism or a poker.

8. Add the coal, close the door and open the primary air vent again until the coal is burning well. Once it is, you can use this vent in the same way as before.

When burning coal and wood, it's key to make sure the flue heats up and stays warm. This will help avoid carbon monoxide coming down the chimney and creosotes building up, which can be flammable. Make sure you have left enough time for the flue to heat up before adding logs or coal. The fire should be burning well, but not fiercely.

It's worth buying a stove thermometer to monitor the temperature; it will go on the side of the stove. Most stoves should stay between 200 and 250°C. This can vary for each stove, so check with the manufacturer.

Thanks to Pinkerbell Stoves for allowing us to film these videos in its store. 

How to maintain your log burner or multi-fuel stove safety

If you choose the right stove, it should be fairly easy to maintain. But there are a few steps you should take to keep it efficient, safe and producing less harmful pollutants (our guide to stoves and pollution explains more on this).

If you burn wood or coal, you should get it swept quarterly (while it's in use). This ensures your stove will stay in good working order and avoid a build-up of tar and soot in your chimney, which could be a fire hazard.

If you burn smokeless coal, you should get it swept yearly. Make sure you use a qualified stove installer or chimney sweep to service your stove. A high proportion (59%) of the stove owners we spoke to get their stove swept annually.

31% get it swept every few years and, worryingly, 4% never get it swept. From a safety point of view, blocked chimneys can also cause deadly carbon monoxide. One sweep should cost £30-£60.

Wet or unseasoned logs will leave more sooty deposits and could increase the number of sweeps you need, so it’s best to use seasoned or kiln-dried wood to cut down on maintenance. 

If you have a pellet stove, you will also need to have a yearly service as the stove has electrical working parts. This can cost around £200.

You can visit Which? Trusted Traders or the National Association of Chimney Sweeps to find a chimney sweep in your area.

It’s also a good idea to clean out the ash from the ash pan and to clean the glass regularly. Keep in mind, though, that leaving a layer of ash can help to start a wood fire and keep it burning. So it's best to check the manufacturer's guide for specific instructions on how often to clean it out.

If your stove has airwash – a cool air vent that helps to stop tar building up on the glass – you may not need to clean the ash or glass as often.

Some stoves also have special cleanburn or cleanheat technologies, which pull in extra air to help burn off more smoke, reducing sooty deposits.

Our wood-burning reviews detail the different features and systems that the different stove companies use in their stoves.

Use damp newspaper dipped in ash to clean the glass, then reuse the newspaper as kindling for your next fire

When cleaning out the stove, it’s worth keeping an eye out for any cracks, distortions, breaks in the seals, holes or rust. These can all affect the stove’s performance and safety.

Depending on how long you’ve had the stove, getting the affected part repaired or replaced if there are any problems may be covered in the manufacturer’s warranty (see more information below). For more information on warranties for stove installation, see our guide to installing a stove.

If you have children or pets, you might want to consider getting a fireguard to go around the stove. Also, it's worth having a bird guard fitted at the top of the chimney to stop birds nesting. This shouldn’t add a lot to the installation costs.

We recommend getting a carbon monoxide detector to sit in the room where the stove will be. It's a legal requirement with stoves installed after 2010 and for stoves in rented properties. 

This must be placed on the ceiling at least 30cm away from any wall or, if it's located on a wall, as high up as possible (above any doors and windows) but not within 15cm of the ceiling. It must also be located between 1m and 3m horizontally from the stove.

Carbon monoxide detectors only cost around £15 and monitor whether any carbon monoxide, which is tasteless and odourless and highly poisonous, is being expelled. Unfortunately, our rigorous tests have found models that won't protect you. See which are the best carbon monoxide monitors

It’s also worth installing a smoke alarm in the room where the stove will be fitted. Take a look at our smoke alarm reviews to find the best as we found two you should avoid because they failed our safety tests.

What to do if you have a problem with your stove

Most stove makers offer extended warranties or guarantees on their stoves. A number of these are around three to 10 years, but we have seen one for as much as 25 years and even a lifetime guarantee. Each brand page within our wood-burning reviews details this.

Some only apply if you buy through a certain dealer, or register the stove on the manufacturer's website. Registering any safety appliance with the manufacturer is also useful if there is ever a recall or issue identified with the model.

It's worth noting that, in most cases, if you get a repair or replace a part of our stove via a third party and not the official channel, it will make any guarantee or warranty void. For many of the brands we looked you can buy spares through their website.

Warranties or guarantees may also only be valid if you get your stove serviced regularly, which we recommend anyway. Check the terms and conditions to confirm this. 

However, your consumer rights under the Consumer Rights Act exist in addition to any manufacturer warranty or guarantee, so if you have a problem within the first year, you're covered anyway. 

If a fault develops after that, you can still claim, but it will be down to you to prove the fault was present at the time of purchase. Read our full guide to warranties and guarantees to learn more and use our template letters.

If you have a faulty good, you should always complain to the retailer you bought the goods from - as they took your money, your contract is with them. Your consumer rights always sit with the retailer and the warranty/guarantee with the manufacturer. 

To find out which brand topped our league table with an excellent 95% when we asked stove owners to rate theirs, visit our wood-burning stove reviews.

(*January 2019 survey of 1,434 Which? members who have bought a stove in the last 10 years.)

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